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Chautauqua Lake, Maple Grove end varsity football merger

May 12, 2016
By Matt Spielman ( , Westfield Republican

Three years ago, facing declining enrollments and participation numbers on the gridiron, Chautauqua Lake and Maple Grove decided to merge their football programs.

On Monday night, the Bemus Point Central School District's Board of Education recommended that Superintendent Mike Mansfield complete the process to discontinue that agreement - at least on the varsity level.

They have Section VI and the New York State Public High School Athletic Association to blame.

Faced with the option of continuing the shared program and competing at the Class B level or splitting, leaving Maple Grove at Class D and Chautauqua Lake at Class C, Mansfield and board President Lisa Allenson said parents and students overwhelmingly supported moving back down to Class D, despite interest from between 21 and 26 varsity players.

"The numbers still aren't good. I think the jayvees are still going to hurt for numbers, even combined," Maple Grove coach Curt Fischer said following the meeting. "I'm definitely going to have to bring kids up to varsity so that we can have a practice. If a jayvee player plays one play in a varsity game, he is ineligible to play with the jayvees that week."

The Thunderbirds, with a basic enrollment (BEDS) number of 241, are left to play in Class C because the BEDS number cut off for Class D is 239.

"Last week our potential Chautauqua Lake coaches, parents and athletes met trying to figure out our next step and after those meetings I felt as though we are definitely up to the challenge of playing on our own," Chautauqua Lake Athletic Director Josh Liddell said in an email Monday night. "We feel that we could have a varsity roster of around the 30. No matter our win-loss record we are going to try to complete the entire season and hopefully be able to put together a good overall experience for our Chautauqua Lake student-athletes."

The three-year merger was largely successful, which was also the main reason Section VI forced the schools' hand.

Section VI's Combining of Schools Committee met Jan. 14 to review the fall 2015 end of season reports and recommended that a future merger between Maple Grove and Chautauqua Lake be declined based on dominance. Minutes showed that combining would be considered again, however, if the team was moved up a classification.

Maple Grove then appealed to Section VI's Executive Committee and Athletic Council as well as the state, but was denied all three times.

In 2013, Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake finished 7-2 and as the No. 2 Class D team in the state with its only losses coming to eventual state champion Randolph.

The Thunder Dragons moved up to Class C in 2014 and won their first of back-to-back Section VI championships. They beat LeRoy, 32-0, in the Far West Regional before losing a state semifinal to Chenango Forks at Sahlen's Stadium in Rochester.

This past fall, Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake again found itself in the sectional final at Ralph Wilson Stadium where it defeated another merged team, Bennett/Olmsted/Alt. Ed. The Thunder Dragons lost a week later to Bath-Haverling in the Far West Regional.

"The section, to make a decision like that ... we never won a state championship," Fischer said. "How are we dominant? We went to the Far West Regional and got our butts kicked by a huge school. It doesn't make sense to me."

Ironically, Section VI also forced Bennett/Olmsted to make a decision this spring when it added East and Middle Early College into the mix. The section told that merged team, which had a BEDS number that added up to a Class B school, that it would have to play at Class A schedule. Its appeals were also denied.

Maple Grove met with potential football parents last Monday and met with potential players on Tuesday while gathering information all week.

"I don't have a clue. This has been so crazy, I don't know what's going to happen," Fischer said when asked if the teams would play together in the future. "I just see football dwindling away right now. I don't think we are the only place."

Now Maple Grove will return to a league that last season included arch-rival Randolph, Frewsburg, Portville, Franklinville/Ellicottville/West Valley, Clymer/Sherman/Panama and Cattaraugus-Little Valley.

"The D schedule is going to be tougher than any schedule we would have played," Fischer said.

Chautauqua Lake will play in Class C, which last season included Southwestern, Allegany-Limestone, Gowanda/Pine Valley, Falconer/Cassadaga Valley and Salamanca.

"Now that we know that Chautauqua Lake will have its own varsity program we will immediately take steps to assemble a great coaching staff and work to put together a strong program. Since the beginning of the whole process we have always had positive parent and community support and the full support of our board of education. I have been extremely proud of how Chautauqua Lake has handled the adverse situation," Liddell said. "Our focus now will be on making sure our Chautauqua Lake student-athletes have a great coaching staff and all the resources they need to be successful next year. I have full confidence that the Chautauqua Lake and Ripley community will rally around our team and coaches specifically knowing that we were placed in this position last minute by the decision of others."

The merged Maple Grove/Chautauqua Lake jayvee team will also play a Class C schedule.

"In regards to playing with Maple Grove on a combined JV team Chautauqua Lake will do it because it is the right thing to do not only for our athletes but also Maple Grove's," Liddell continued. "The future shows that we will need to recombine with Maple Grove and if anyone disagrees with that they can simply look at the total upcoming roster numbers in grades 7-10 in both districts."



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